Answers to commonly asked questions about rights of protestors | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: June 22, 2024

The First Amendment guarantees the right of all Americans to protest peacefully, but many of us still have questions about what our specific rights are at these protests. If you plan on taking part in protests, here are some most common questions answered by Timothy Zick, a professor of Government and Citizenship at the College of William & Mary Law School who specializes in constitutional law and the First Amendment and Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Technology, and Privacy Project, who studies free speech protections under the First Amendment.

  1. What are my rights as a protestor? Officials cannot stop you from protesting, but they can place restrictions on when and where you do so. For example, limiting protestors’ access to highways or instituting curfews. The First Amendment does not extend to protests that escalate to violence or the destruction of private or public property, but if protests are planned in advance, organizers may obtain a permit so law enforcement can block off public spaces for them to demonstrate. 
  2. Where can I protest? Sidewalks, city parks, streets, and other public forums are usually lawful. Some states require you to file a permit to block off streets and people can be arrested or cited for blocking passage. 
  3. Can police or local leaders tell us to disperse? Police and local government can order you to leave, say, if they’ve imposed a curfew, as long as they give you ample notice to leave safely, but you have no legal obligation to comply if a mayor pleads with people to go home. 
  4. What can I record? You have the right to record people and events at a protest, including the police, but some states have different rules about audio recording and sharing that without the consent of the people whose voices you recorded. Police can’t ask you to give them your phone or forcibly confiscate it without a search warrant, but Sykes recommends complying to avoid escalation and then filing a police misconduct complaint or contacting the ACLU
  5. Can people take pictures of my face? Being at a public protest means consenting to have your photo taken.
  6. What should I pack for safety at a protest? Bring water and a snack. If you bring a bag, be prepared for it to be searched. Wearing a mask is recommended to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. If you fear you may be arrested, memorize, or write on your arm the number to a local or national law organization that could assist you in getting out of jail and handling your case afterward. 
  7. What police actions are legal at a protest? It’s the responsibility of the police to protect your right to peaceful assembly, but they also have the authority to deescalate violence as they see fit. It can be hard to prove the unlawful use of force, but police do not have the right to search your phone or personal devices without a warrant or ask you to delete videos or photos you have taken. 
  8. What can I do if a police officer stops me? Stay calm, don’t resist, and ask them if you’re free to go after speaking with them. If they detain you, ask for clarification on what crime you are suspected of committing. 
  9. What can I do if I get arrested? You have the right to remain silent. In some states, police have the right to know your name, but they don’t have the right to know where you’re from or your citizenship status. Ask for your lawyer immediately and remember that number you held onto for legal support. Police can’t listen in on your call if you’re phoning a lawyer, but they can listen in if you’re calling a friend or family member. 
  10. What can I do if I feel law enforcement or officials violated my rights? Under Section 1983 of federal law, you can sue for civil rights violations. Some protesters file large class-action suits that are occasionally successful, but qualified immunity can shield officers from civil liability. 
  11.  Can my employer fire me if they find out I attended a protest? You have constitutional protections for what you do outside of work, but depending on the specific contract you signed when hired, yes, your employment can be terminated. Read through your hiring contract for specific details.
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